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AT THE HELM

Pieces that form the big picture

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RARING TO GO: (Above) Smart electric scooter by portfolio company Niu Technologies.

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RARING TO GO: (Above) Celebrating Niu’s Nasdaq listing in October.

THE journey from fighter jet systems engineer to star venture capitalist may sound incredible. But for Jenny Lee, GGV Capital managing partner, it's one of multiple pieces in her career that came together in serendipitous fashion.

She worked about four to five years at the defence division of Singapore Technologies Aerospace after she obtained her bachelor's and master's degree in the US in electrical engineering. The stint honed her ability to work with diverse segments of people.

"It was a job where very early on I had to learn to adapt, to listen and work with people from different backgrounds in a single room. Because at the end of the day we need the plane to fly."

"The VC job is about people. We deal with people every day, from 18-year olds trying to change the world to 60-year olds. The (entrepreneurs) have chosen a tough path to create products and services to change the status quo. The excitement and energy they give out are very attractive."

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The ST Aerospace job required her to work with technicians, engineers and of course the fighter pilots, seen as the elite of the Air Force, who came to work in Ferraris.

Yet it was in university that the prospect of a career in venture capital intrigued her. "I had the opportunity to take a class on business plan writing and entrepreneurship. That's when I realised there is another world, not just about being an engineer but building your own product. I tried to write my business plan and do a start-up. I knew that was something very interesting and a potential path for me."

"You're not born to be a good VC. Being a good investor means you have to understand people, markets and capital. Right after school, I thought: If you have a long-term vision, you have to know where you are going. But you don't have to get there in one hop. You can take some time and make multiple hops."

After ST, she joined Morgan Stanley in Hong Kong, and then Jafco Asia where she cut her teeth investing in tech start-ups in China, Taiwan and South Korea. In 2005, GGV Capital dangled the opportunity to start an office in China. She hasn't looked back since. Her VC smarts have caught investors' eyes. She was ranked 10th in Forbes Midas List in 2015, the first woman in the top 10. She has made the list consistently since then. The Midas List is a data-driven ranking of the world's 100 top venture capitalists based on exits (IPOs or acquisitions) above US$200 million, and private companies valued at US$400 million or more over the last five years.

In 2017 she was ranked 69th, and in 2018 she was number 74, with YY.com named as her "notable deal". YY is a live-streaming social media platform in China, co-founded by David Li and Lei Jun, who also founded Xiaomi. The firm was one of the early investors; YY was listed on Nasdaq in 2012. GGV exited in 2017 for a reported 15 times return. Ms Lee says she hasn't had any mentor in her VC career. "I've had a tough life. What has allowed me to do what I love is that I'm very focused. I assess my strengths and weaknesses very honestly. When I enter a new market or area, I always start from ground zero, always assume that I have to fight to win.

"If you go into a new area, vertical or sector with the mindset that you're the leader, you'll be blindsided. But if you always assume that you know the least relative to everyone else, you'll try harder. You'll learn faster and be more humble because you know you're not the best out there."

The trait of humility applies to entrepreneurs as well. "Sometimes the over-confident entrepreneur will miss something because he underestimates the competition. The entrepreneur who may be paranoid but continues to learn, to figure out what's out there that can eat his lunch - that's how to win. That has always been a bit of my philosophy, and I think it has helped me over the last 17 or 18 years. Everytime I think there is a limit, the ceiling keeps getting higher, which is great. You have to hit the ceiling before you realise it's a false ceiling."

Being a woman actually helps, maintains Ms Lee. "Number one, as women we're logical, but the emotional or empathetic part also allows us to interact with people better. Most CEOs are lonely. When they have a problem they can't tell other employees. They need a board member or investor to talk to. Number two, the entrepreneurs, whether male or female, find they can talk to me. The male entrepreneurs can speak to me about family issues. They work so hard, sleep in the office; the wife complains. I can go talk to the wife. If it's a female entrepreneur there is understanding … It's harder for them to confide in a male VC.

"I think it's a big advantage. Say you're fund raising and you meet 10 VCs. Two are women. You'll probably remember the women better." W